The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 40

Tranquillity

It is because I was foolish then that I am now wise. O philosopher who see nothing save in a flash, how short is your vision! Your eye is not made to follow the underground working of the passions.

FRAU VON GOETHE

This conversation was interrupted by a judicial examination, followed by a conference with the lawyer retained for the defence. These were the only absolutely disagreeable moments in a heedless existence full of tender fantasies.

‘It was murder, and premeditated murder,’ said Julien to magistrate and counsel alike. ‘I am sorry, gentlemen,’ he added, smiling; ‘but this reduces your task to a very small matter.

‘After all,’ thought Julien, when he had succeeded in ridding himself of these two persons, ‘I must be brave, and braver, evidently, than these two men. They regard as the worst of evils, as the king of terrors, this duel to a fatal issue, of which I shall begin to think seriously only upon the day itself.

‘That is because I have known a greater evil,’ Julien continued, philosophising to himself. ‘I suffered far more keenly on my first journey to Strasbourg, when I thought that I had been abandoned by Mathilde . . . And to think that I longed with such passion for this perfect intimacy which today leaves me so unmoved! Indeed, I am happier by myself than when that lovely girl shares my solitude . . . ’

The lawyer, a man of rules and formalities, thought him mad, and supposed, with the rest of the public, that it was jealousy that had put the pistol in his hand. One day, he ventured to suggest to Julien that this allegation, whether true or false, would be an excellent line of defence. But the prisoner became in a flash passionate and incisive.

‘On your life, Sir,’ cried Julien beside himself with rage, ‘bear in mind never again to utter that abominable falsehood.’ The prudent advocate was afraid for a moment of being murdered himself.

He prepared his defence, because the decisive moment was rapidly approaching. Besancon and the whole Department could talk of nothing but this cause celebre. Julien was in ignorance of this, he had begged that no one should ever speak to him of such matters.

That very day, Fouque and Mathilde having sought to inform him of certain public rumours, which seemed to them to furnish grounds for hope, Julien had cut them short at the first word.

‘Leave me to enjoy my ideal life. Your petty bickerings, your details of real life, all more or less irritating to me, would bring me down from heaven. One dies as best one can; as for me, I wish to think of death only in my own way. What do I care for other people? My relations with other people are soon to be cut short. For pity’s sake, do not speak to me of them again: it is quite enough to have to see the magistrate and my counsel.

‘Indeed,’ he said to himself, ‘it appears to be my destiny to die in a dream. An obscure creature, like myself, sure of being forgotten within a fortnight, would indeed be foolish, one must admit, were he to play a part . . .

‘It is strange, all the same, that I have learned the art of enjoying life only now that I see its term draw so near.’

He spent these last days in pacing the narrow terrace on the roof of his dungeon, smoking some excellent cigars for which Mathilde had sent a courier to Holland, and with no suspicion that his appearance was daily awaited by all the telescopes in the town. His thoughts were at Vergy. Never did he speak of Madame de Renal to Fouque, but on two or three occasions this friend told him that she was recovering rapidly, and these words echoed in his heart.

While Julien’s spirit was almost always completely lost in the world of ideas, Mathilde, occupied with realities, as becomes an aristocratic heart, had contrived to increase the intimacy of the direct correspondence between Madame de Fervaques and M. de Frilair to such a point that already the mighty word Bishopric had been uttered.

The venerable prelate, in whose hands was the list of benefices, added as a postscript to one of his niece’s letters: ‘That poor Sorel is nothing worse than a fool, I hope that he will be restored to us.’

At the sight of these lines, M. de Frilair was almost out of his mind. He had no doubt of his ability to save Julien.

‘But for that Jacobinical law which prescribes the registration of an endless list of jurors, and has no other real object than to take away all influence from well-born people,’ he said to Mathilde, on the eve of the drawing by lot of the thirty-six jurors for the assize, ‘I could have answered for the verdict. Did I not secure the acquittal of the cure N——?’

It was with pleasure that, on the following day, among the names drawn from the urn, M. de Frilair found those of five members of the Congregation of Besancon, and, among those who were strangers to the town, the names of MM. Valenod, de Moirod and de Cholin. ‘I can answer at once for these eight jurors,’ he told Mathilde. ‘The first five are machines. Valenod is my agent, Moirod owes all he has to me, Cholin is an imbecile, who is afraid of everything.’

The newspaper published throughout the Department the names of the jurors, and Madame de Renal, to the inexpressible terror of her husband, decided to come to Besancon. All that M. de Renal could obtain from her was that she would not leave her bed, so that she might not be exposed to the nuisance of being summoned to give evidence. ‘You do not understand my position,’ said the former Mayor of Verrieres. ‘I am now a Liberal of the defection, as they call it; no doubt but that rascal Valenod and M. de Frilair will easily persuade the Attorney General and the Judges to anything that can be unpleasant for me.’

Madame de Renal yielded without protest to her husband’s orders, ‘ïf I were to appear at the Assize Court,’ she told herself, ‘I should seem to be demanding vengeance.’

Notwithstanding all the promises of prudence made to her spiritual director and to her husband, no sooner had she arrived in Besancon than she wrote with her own hand to each of the thirty-six jurors:

‘I shall not appear in Court upon the day of the trial, Sir, because my presence might prejudice M. Sorel’s case. I desire but one thing in the world, and that passionately, namely his acquittal. Be assured of this, the terrible thought that on my account an innocent man has been sent to his death would poison the remainder of my life, and would doubtless shorten it. How could you sentence him to death, while I still live? No, beyond question, society has not the right to take life, especially from such a man as Julien Sorel. Everyone at Verrieres has seen him in moments of distraction. This poor young man has powerful enemies; but, even among his enemies (and how many they are!) who is there that has any doubt of his admirable talents and his profound learning? It is not an ordinary person that you are about to judge, Sir. For nearly eighteen months we have all known him to be pious, wise, studious; but, two or three times in the year, he was seized by fits of melancholy which bordered on insanity. The whole town of Verrieres, all our neighbours at Vergy where we go in the fine weather, all my family, the Sub–Prefect himself, will bear testimony to his exemplary piety; he knows by heart the whole of the Holy Bible. Would an unbeliever have applied himself for years on end to learning the Holy Scriptures? My sons will have the honour to present this letter to you: they are children. Deign to question them, Sir, they will furnish you with all the details relative to this poor young man that may still be necessary to convince you of the barbarity of condemning him. Far from avenging me, you would be sentencing me to death.

‘What is there that his enemies can advance in rebuttal of the following fact? The injury that ensued from one of those moments of insanity which my children themselves used to remark in their tutor was so far from dangerous that within less than two months, it has allowed me to post from Verrieres to Besancon. If I learn, Sir, that you have even the slightest hesitation in saving from the barbarity of our laws a person who is so little guilty, I shall leave my bed, to which I am confined solely by my husband’s orders, and shall come to throw myself at your feet.

‘Declare, Sir, that the premeditation is not proven, and you will not have to reproach yourself with the blood of an innocent man,’ etc., etc.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30